Sunday, August 21, 2011

Justification – the Necessity of Works

A common, and unfair, accusation levelled against us Catholics is that we believe that we are justified by works. The reason that this accusation is made is because we do not adhere to Martin Luther’s doctrine of Sola Fide i.e. that justification is by faith alone and without any good works at all.   

In my days as a non-Catholic Christian, I firmly held to the Protestant doctrine of Sola Fide. It was a teaching that I really didn’t question because, as far as I knew, it was the most basic and fundamental principle of Christianity. After all, wasn’t this the one thing that the Protestant Reformers rescued from the wicked “Papists” who for so long had led people to believe that we are saved by our works?
On one level, I missed the logical fact that to believe is itself a work. But more importantly, I failed to realise that the Catholic Church, as the pillar and foundation of truth, was actually right on the teaching of justification all along. Thanks be to God, He was gracious enough to allow me to see that Sola Fide is unscriptural and that the teaching of the Protestant Reformers was not in line with what the Church has taught since the time of the Apostles.
Just because we Catholics do not believe we are saved by faith alone, Protestants tend to think that this must mean that we believe we are saved by works. This is unfair reasoning at best, and really is not what the Catholic Church teaches. Rather, the Church teaches that we are in fact saved by faith, but that faith is not alone i.e. saving faith is necessarily and always accompanied by good works.

One of the “proof-texts” used by Protestants to back up their doctrine of Sola Fide is Eph 2:8-9 where St. Paul says:

“ grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”

But this verse should not be read in isolation, because St. James tells us quite emphatically:

“So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead...You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” Jms 2:17,24

A reading of the entire passage in James 2 will reveal that in St. James’ argument, a “dead faith” is a very real faith (even the devils believe and tremble – v19); but it is a dead faith nonetheless. Following St. James’ thought, if justification is by faith alone (as Protestants suggest); then the devil himself would be justified by his faith. On the flip-side of this “dead faith” is a faith which MUST be accompanied by good works if it is to be living and life-giving.
Origen, writing early in the third century affirmed this when he said:

“Whoever dies in his sins, even if he professes to believe in Christ, does not truly believe in Him; and even if that which exists without works be called faith, such faith is dead in itself, as we read in the Epistle bearing the name of James.” – Commentaries on John

So, how do we reconcile what St. James says about works and faith with what St. Paul’s teaching? One way of looking at the above verses is to perceive that St. James teaches us that we are not saved by faith alone, whilst St. Paul teaches us that we are not saved by works alone. Rather, we need to see that neither faith nor works stand alone. They stand together hand-in-hand and both are gifts from God. So, even though we are saved by faith AND works, it ultimately comes back to the fact that we are saved by God’s grace and God’s grace ALONE.
This is also echoed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:  

“Believing in Jesus Christ and in the One who sent him for our salvation is necessary for obtaining that salvation...without faith no one has ever attained justification, nor will anyone obtain eternal life but he who endures to the end. Faith is an entirely free gift that God makes to man...” CCC #161-162

“Our justification comes from the grace of God...” CCC # 1996
Interestingly, when one examines the Gospels, you will find that our Lord placed more emphasis on good works than He did on faith. His parable of the wedding banquet (Matt 22:1-14) bears this out when He speaks of the person without the wedding robe being case into outer darkness (v 12-13). Comparing this passage with St. John’s Revelation, we find that the fine linen garment “is the righteous deeds of the saints” (Rev 19:8).

So if we desire to enter into the presence of God when our earthly sojourn is complete, let us never cease in our pursuit of holiness and good works in faith, without which we can never see God (Heb 12:14). And let us do so in faith, because without faith, it is impossible for our good works to please God (Heb 11:6).


  1. Hey Justin,

    As you know, I found myself misunderstanding Catholic doctrine on this point, and thanks to you, I've come to a better understanding. My intention isn't to start another debate, but anyway here are some observations.

    Eph 2:8-9 is actually saying that salvation happens "apart from" works. As you said, "we are in fact saved by faith, but that faith is not alone i.e. saving faith is necessarily and always accompanied by good works." I was actually quite startled with this statement, because this is EXACTLY what Luther and the Protestant Church has been teaching all along. I often feel that the Catholic view is SO close, and yet SO far, and feel so sorry for Catholics because their view is totally destructive to assurance.

    James and Paul are actually not speaking about justification in that same sense. Notice the context, "So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead." "Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works." James is showing that works show that faith is alive, and living faith "saves" (vs 14). So although "even the demons believe," yet their works show that their faith is dead, and therefore that their faith cannot "save" them.

    1) Faith is not a work. Paul explicitly identifies two categories - "faith" and "works." (Gal 3:2, etc)

    2) On the surface James may seem to contradict Paul. I.e., Paul denies that Abraham was “justified by works” (Rom. 4:2), arguing from Gen. 15:6 that Abraham's FAITH “was counted to him as righteousness” (Rom. 4:3). However, James's assertion in this verse (that “Abraham [was] … justified by works”) is based not on Gen. 15:6 but on Gen. 22:9–10, where (many years later) Abraham began to offer Isaac as a sacrifice. It is absolutely irrational that Abraham was justified twice (in the "declared righteous" sense), because righteousness cannot be applied twice. Thus the two events/justifications have two meanings.

    PAUL, shows that Gen. 15:6 emphasizes the sense of being declared righteous by God through faith, on the basis of Jesus' atoning sacrifice (Rom. 3:24–26), and therefore having "peace with God" once for all.

    JAMES, in context, shows that Gen 22:9-10 subsequently emphasises that Abraham's WORK showed the validity of his FAITH, which justified him many years earlier. The same is true for us on the day of judgement. James 2:21 seems to emphasize the way in which works demonstrate that someone has been justified, as evidenced by the good works that the person does (cf. Matt. 12:33–37).

    Abraham was justified by faith and counted righteous upon believing in Gen 15:6. However, his WORKS came much later in Gen 22 or even later when he was circumcised (Rom 4:1-10). To you, surely that means that between Gen 15 and Gen 22, Abraham was not saved, because he did not have works. But if he was "declared righteous," how could he not be saved? And if he was indeed saved, then it was before he did any works.

    Sola Fide indeed: "To the one who does NOT work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness." (Romans 4:5). Abraham was justified before he did any works. "Faith alone" is linguistically equivalent to "apart from works" because there are only two categories in Scripture - "faith and works" (Gal 3:2 etc.)

  2. Hi Graham

    I’d be interested in knowing just where and how you think the Catholic view of justifications is “SO close and yet SO far”??? Also, don’t worry about feeling sorry for us Catholics...I think you need to be more worried about people who live with a false sense of security based on Calvin’s teaching of assurance.

    Your definition of “justification” as “being declared righteous” is John Calvin's interpretation, and it is wrong on a number of points. For example, when St. Paul talks about justification he says that through Christ’s obedience we are “made righteous” not simply “declared righteous” (see Rom 5:18-19). Secondly, if Calvin was correct, it actually makes of God a liar because He would be declaring something righteous which was actually NOT righteous – that’s the same as lying. So, in the Catholic (and correct) understanding of justification (which is a lifelong process) Abraham’s progressive justification makes perfect sense.

    In respect of what St. James writes, there is nothing textually to indicate that he is speaking about “a different kind of justification” as that spoken of by St. Paul. Rather, the “difference” comes about because of your own presupposed theological position i.e. you believe in justification by faith alone; and because St. James says we are NOT justified by faith alone, you are compelled to redefine what St. James means by justification. You also end up needing to redefine “faith”, which according to you is apart from works. But this ends up in a completely illogical argument because it ends up making St. James’ argument that you are justified by faith apart from works with works.

    In addition, you are also wrong about Abraham’s works coming much later than Gen 15. Although St. James cites Gen 22, he is simply citing an example of Abraham’s faith in action. The reality is that according to the author of Hebrews, Abraham’s faith AND works were active even before St. Paul's example of Gen 15 when he left Ur (Gen 12:1ff; Heb 11:8). In fact, the whole of Hebrews 11 is a testament of faith AND works.

    Of course, if you are right, then the devil must be justified because he believes, and maybe his works will just follow later. However, if the devil is not saved, then surely “assurance of salvation” goes out the window because the devil’s initial faith (apart from works) would’ve been enough for him to be “declared righteous”. No offence Gray, but I don’t think that the Calvinistic argument on justification and assurance stands up to the test of St. James’ argument.